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How does a trade association react when supplements are scrutinized?

Karen Howard CEO and Executive Director of  ONHA
Joshua Johnson, host of NPR's 1A, put the supplements industry on the defensive today. What can trade organizations do to earn consumers' trust?

Joshua Johnson, host of National Public Radio's program 1A, had the dietary supplement industry for lunch today, with guests Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Dr. Anne McTiernan, cancer prevention researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and Steve Mister, CEO and president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).

Here come the Flintstones

Kicking off the show with the vintage theme song from the Flintstones vitamins ad set the stage for Johnson, a self-described gym rat, to hone in on fitness supplements, asserting, a member of CRN, is using blatant marketing techniques with digitally altered photographs of models to sell products under false pretense.

As a former FDA official, Lurie was quick to note the Food and Drug Administration is hopelessly under-resourced and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act is woefully inadequate to regulate the pharmaceutical industry. He sprinkled new data points over his customary commentary referencing the debacle with fraud relating to supplements for opioid addiction and the fact that random clinical trials demonstrate the negative impact dietary supplements have on health conditions. The icing on his cake? Sen. Orrin Hatch’s retirement and new opportunity for desperately needed changes.

I raised my glass when McTiernan said people needed to know their levels of vitamins, with emphasis on vitamin D, to supplement with effective dosages. Her work in “gold standard” clinical trials has demonstrated a reduction in the biomarkers for some cancer risks, including colon cancer. She’s aware that at least half of all cancer patients use supplements. However, self-dosing for vitamin D and multivitamins—and the associated variations in brands and ingredients—leaves her wondering how much and what her study participants are taking.

Defense was the game plan

Once again, the supplement industry found itself on the defensive:

  • Articulating the requirements of good manufacturing practices begged more questions and opened the door to criticism when it comes to the quality and amount of random clinical trials research.
  • Documentation of supply chain integrity continues to plague the industry, especially in relation to raw ingredients as they traverse overseas markets.
  • A conversation on ephedra raised the point that it is the only product the FDA has pulled from the shelves. Our detractors conclude there must be more bad ingredients that aren't being identified in the adverse-event reporting system.
  • Consumers called and wrote in to articulate confusion around what ingredients are in the products they pick up.
  • And it is clear, no matter how well we answer these concerns or cite government regulation, marketing and safety issues of bad actors in the fitness, weight loss and sexual enhancement markets—where false claims and adulteration do occur—is an Achilles heel.

What's an industry to do?

It is the obligation of a trade association to support companies that achieve the highest articulated standards available in the industry. Membership standards need to ensure both compliance with law and commitment to defined actions that ensure transparency, traceability and continual quality improvement of the supply chain.

We must financially support nutrient research that demonstrates change in health status and reduced risk of disease, as well as support consumer education. Every American’s health is at risk from deficiency in 15 different vitamins and nutrients.

We must conduct testing of the supply chain for the unexpected and unwanted. Pesticides, antibiotics and phthalates are not healthy or natural. It’s time to exceed expectations.

If the question is—as it was today—it is the consumers’ responsibility to navigate these issues themselves, how will we answer? Johnson has concluded it is possible to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Clearly, as industry associations we have a responsibility to consumers. At Organic & Natural Health, we are writing a new story. 

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